May 31, 2001
Feast and Help Yourself
"Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage From Birth to Immortality" by Harold M. Schulweis. (UAHC Press, $12.95)
"Finding Each Other in Judaism" distills decades of those quiet, private moments when a curious, wounded or concerned congregant asks the rabbi: "What do I do now?"
How does a rabbi, a master and teacher, a living repository of ancient tradition and modern empathy, translate rituals both compelling and arcane into vibrant, meaningful, relevant life-markers?
Rabbi Harold Schulweis invites us into his study and speaks plainly about the ceremonies that mark Jewish life passages. How can divorced parents overcome their differences and distance when celebrating a child's bar or bat mitzvah?
"Bar/bat mitzvah events have too often become occasions for acting out post-divorce enmity, wherein children are caught between the tugs of loyalty to both parents," Schulweis writes. "Yet, some divorced parents have managed to put on a face of cordiality in the presence of the child, the family, friends, and the congregation. In one unforgettable instance, divorced parents who joined to receive the honor of an aliyah at their child's bat mitzvah recited the blessings, then turned toward each other and embraced. The wonderment of the face of the child and her first smile on the pulpit that day spoke volumes."
How can a seriously ill person pray?
"Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, 'Whoever believes in miracles is a fool, and whoever does not believe in miracles is an atheist.' We are neither fools nor atheists."
How can we mourn? "Not the wisest/ Not the smartest/ Not the kindest/ Not the most useful/ Not the richest/ Not the most successful/ Not the tallest/ Not the bravest/ But my own."
At the heart of every ceremony, central to each of the meditation-poem-prayers that Rabbi Schulweis presents, lies the Image of God in which each person is created. In his meditation, "Facing Sickness," he writes, "My God manifest/ Through unknown researchers,/ Physicians and nurses attending severed wounds,/ Helping recovery./ My God revealed/ Through family and friends,/ Prayers added to my own,/ Transfusing will./ My God/ Within my tradition/ My God whom I do not fear/ In whose goodness I trust."
God comes into the world through the actions and kindness of one human toward another. In those acts, we bear witness to God's Image in our moral deeds, the rabbi maintains.
Six short chapters, each similarly structured, discuss the traditional life-cycle events (birth and brit, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, death and bereavement), events not usually considered life-cycle passages (illness and recovery, divorce) and situations often overlooked as part of public ritual (conversions and family reconciliations). Each chapter opens with a concise and succinct presentation of important rabbinic ideas about the particular event and is followed by a collection of poem-prayers. The meditations are lovely pieces, although occasionally a bit clunky. Not only do they have value on their own, but a piece could help a celebrant personalize seemingly distant and inapplicable rituals.
In the introductory chapter, Rabbi Schulweis develops a demanding yet fulfilling theology: Through rituals we overcome our existential isolation. Reaching out to family, friends, and community, present and past, we develop relationships in which we can imitate God. While we strive to see the Image of God in all, "it is not the face but the back of God that is imitated. God is Imageless, but God's ways are discernible and emulatable."
Rabbi Schulweis mourns the great rifts that tear at the American Jewish cultural fabric. There are those who celebrate rites without any real passage (Rabbi Schulweis recounts Kafka's estrangement from a father who possessed only, in Kafka's words, an "insignificant scrap of Judaism" and Gershom Scholem's father's use of Shabbat candles to light his cigar with an ersatz blessing.)
Then there are those who pass from one stage of life to another with no marker except the calendar, the owners of riteless passages.
Estranged too are the private and public realms. Traditional Jewish liturgy is communal, its language collective and plural. Increasingly, synagogues are asked by congregants to address personal as opposed to public needs.
Rabbi Schulweis suggests that we can integrate the self and community with a sensitive and close reading of Hillel's legendary aphorism "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I?"
Rabbi Schulweis' slim volume can help these valiant and necessary efforts. As a supplement to any prayerbook, as a supplement for anyone who prays on these occasions, Rabbi Schulweis has added a valuable and moving text to our shelves.